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California’s Supplemental Education Services (SES): What Gives?

California’s Supplemental Educational Services program looks a bit curious when you first study it: the grant-like program isn’t really a grant program, per se. It’s a competition designed to, as we said in the Seliger Funding Report:

apply for state approval of the applicant’s capability to provide before- and after-school tutoring to remedy academic deficiencies in low-income and at-risk youth. Once approved, the applicant can receive contracts from CA LEAs to provide such tutoring services. The SES program is a federal pass-through program and is available in all states.

(The link is ours, naturally.)

If you’re “funded”—although “selected” is a more appropriate verb here—you’ll be able to seek contracts with school districts throughout the state. Those contracts can be very lucrative. If you want to apply, however, you’ve got to do a two-step dance, and the application we link to in the first sentence is the first step.

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Links: Kickstarter for Municipal Projects, Sentence Studies, L.A.’s Transit Revolution, Recess, Homeless Youth, and More!

* Citizenvestor: Kickstarter for Municipal Projects. So if your municipality has public services planned but no way of paying for them, it can see how badly residents really want the service.

* Here’s another silly sentence alert: the NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers” program says that it supports “the research and development of innovative models for engaging K-12 students in authentic experiences that build their capacity to participate in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communications technology (ICT) workforce of the future.” How many grant programs are designed to support inauthentic experiences? And what’s the difference between an “authentic” experience and an experience that isn’t? (I’m also guessing the writers haven’t read Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves.)

* Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again: What kind of democracy teaches its young people they’ll be punished for talking out of turn?

* One of my favorite federal programs has just returned for another round: “Grants to Manufacturers of Certain Worsted Wool Fabrics.” There’s $5 million available. If there are any manufacturers of certain worsted wool fabrics among our readership, please, give us a call at 800.540.8906. (Even weirder than the program itself is the sub-agency administering the grant: the Administration for Children and Families. What do worsted wool fabrics have to do with children and families?)

* L.A.’s Transit Revolution: How a ballot initiative, a visionary mayor, and a quest for growth are turning Los Angeles into America’s next great mass-transit city.

* The Grant Program I’d Love to See, from “Confessions of a Community College Dean.”

* Someone found us by searching for “how hard is it to become a grant writer.” The short answer is “very.” The longer answer can be found in many posts on this blog (here is a decent place to start), and the answer also depends on the existing writing skills and nonprofit / government knowledge of the person asking the question.

* Sex? Not my kid! A new book explores parental delusions about their teens’ sexuality. Notice this: “[S]exual threats are seen [by parents] as ever present — from someone else’s sex-crazed kid, someone else’s corruptive parental influence, someone else’s perversion. Rarely do parents attribute the risk to their own child’s sexual desire or agency. Surprise, surprise.”

* “Low Transfer of Learning: The Glass Is Half Full,” which ends with this: “Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job. Seriously.”

* What OxyContin Addicts in West Virginia Tell Us About the War on Drugs, which substance abuse treatment providers probably already know.

* Someone called us and wanted to know about grants for a faith-based restaurant that was structured as a business. We were perplexed: what’s a faith-based restaurant? Does that mean the food is likely to be better or worse than a standard restaurant? Regardless, we were confused, because we’ve never heard of a faith-based restaurant before.

* The Rebirth of Recess: How do you introduce recess to kids who have never left the classroom?

* Survey: 75% of Homeless Youth Use at Least One Social Network.

* Personal poverty coaches?

* “The Brooklyn bookshop saving out-of-print sci-fi, one e-book at a time: The genre enthusiasts are working with rights holders to preserve great books.”

* Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok announce Marginal Revolution University. I admire the spirit of the enterprise but am somewhat skeptical of its likely impact.

* How To Win The War On Poverty: Recognize That Redistribution Works:

… while the poverty rate has barely declined over the past 45 years according to official measures, that’s because the official measure—which looks at pre-tax pre-transfer income—by definition rules out the beneficial impact of most public policy solutions. If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period. If you look at consumption measures—which can help capture the value of the in-kind provision of services—there’s even more improvement.

* “Hard Unemployment Truths About ‘Soft’ Skills: Finding qualified applicants for high-tech jobs would be great. So would finding someone who can answer the phone.” I am somewhat skeptical about these stories for a number of reasons: they involve dubious statistics from self-interested trade groups (“Manpower Group’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey” or “A survey in April of human-resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management”), and none of the “representatives from major American manufacturing companies” quoted in the article are saying what they’re paying. “What exactly are the skills you can’t find?” usually means, “What are the skills you can’t find at a given price?” I would love to find an expert masseuse for $12 / hour, but guess what? I can’t, and neither can anyone else, because that’s not the market-clearing price.

* What Does it Mean to Be Poor?: The consumption of the poor is much higher than their incomes. Is poverty falling, or not? The answer is often, “It depends and how you measure and what you’re measuring.” In material terms—which the right likes to focus on—the poor are arguably doing better than ever. In health, public safety, and living experience terms—which the left likes to focus on—the poor are doing pretty poorly. This is also more of a class than income-based issue, despite me using income signifiers / descriptors her.

* Life Expectancy Shrinks for Less-Educated Whites in U.S.. Compare this to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart; The State of White America, 1960–2010 See also Intangible Dividend of Antipoverty Effort: Happiness.

* Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well.

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First 5 LA Issues a Huge RFP for Homeless Services, and Nimble Nonprofits Start Hopping (Or Hoping)

Los Angeles County nonprofits have a unique opportunity to nibble on some fresh grant lettuce, because First 5 L.A.* just issued a NOFA for the Supportive Housing for Homeless Families Fund. There is $23,000,000 available to provide housing and supportive services for families that are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, that have had involvement with the child welfare system, and that include children aged prenatal to 5 years in Los Angeles County. This is a ton of money for a local funding cycle, and the announcement illustrates that, despite rumors to the contrary, there are many sources of funding available if you keep your ears up and your eye on the prize. If you’re a LA nonprofit even vaguely interested in homeless services, hop over to the mandatory bidder’s conference and nose around. I think you’ll find this to be a pretty tasty NOFA.

Since the advent of the seemingly endless Great Recession, we’ve written several posts about how important it is for nonprofits to stay nimble—including “Time Banks, Barter, Community Gardens and More: Economic Misery Provides Opportunities for Nimble Nonprofits” and “Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By.” The close presidential election and the potential cutbacks in federal funding posed by the looming fiscal cliff should also have most nonprofits hopping around like bunnies, as they are hoping for new income streams.

* Each of California’s 58 counties has a First 5 agency that distributes grant funds derived from the 50 cent special tax on cigarettes (Proposition 82), which was championed by Meathead, AKA Rob Reiner a few years ago. Since all California counties have this funding stream, if you’re a CA nonprofit that provides early childhood services, go to your First 5 agency and take a dip.

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HRSA’s Service Area Competition (SAC) Soaks Up Some Sun in Miami, While Brownfields Grants Are Available in California

This week’s Grant Alert e-mail newsletter has a curious RFP: a single HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) grant is available to Miami-area nonprofits. You might remember SAC because we wrote “HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) Grants: How to Defend Your Turf or Deftly Lift a HRSA Grant from an Unsuspecting Grantee” back in June, when the general competition was underway.

The fact that a second competition is being held exclusively for Miami could mean a couple of things:

1. Whoever got the Miami grant screwed it up and had their funding pulled. If so, the local Miami paper should be on this story but probably isn’t.

2. None of the Miami applications were fundable, but for whatever reason HRSA wants to fund Miami.

3. HRSA somehow came up with extra money, perhaps through a Congressional appropriation or earmark, for Miami money.

4. Something even more devious is going on behind the scenes that we’re not aware of.

Of those, number 1 is the most plausible. This also means that Miami-area nonprofits who want to get on the SAC Section 330 bandwagon have an unusual opportunity to do so, because no one is defending that turf at the moment.

The other set of RFPs in this week’s newsletter are three Brownfields programs that should be of special interest to California public agencies and nonprofit affordable housing developers that are interested in developing Brownfields sites. The grants should generate more interest than usual because the California legislature recently eliminated redevelopment agencies, along with tax-increment financing and the 20% set-aside of tax increment funds for affordable housing that was previously required. In this face of this sea change, Brownfields grants have become a much more attractive way of defraying development costs than they were previously.

If you’re part of a city in California, you should be thinking about this RFP.

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Why nonprofits are more like businesses than you realize

In a Hacker News thread, “guylhem” asked a (very) common question, in the context of firms that specialize in providing services to nonprofit and public agencies: “Why exactly is profit / commerce considered a bad thing?”

Since we’ve been working with nonprofit and public agencies for decades, we naturally have some ideas about the issue (we’ve discussed some of those ideas before, in “Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing” and “Why Fund Nonprofits, Public Agencies, and Other Organizations Through Grant Applications At All?“). A lot of people feel nonprofit and public agencies are not supposed to be like other businesses, even though in reality they share a lot of the needs and attributes of for-profit businesses.

Consider similarities. Nonprofits need their toilets to work. They need an IT guy or gal. Though they obviously don’t face the profit drive that businesses do, they still need to “make” more money than they spend, either to invest in new services or build a small but prudent reserve. If they don’t make more than they spend, the nonprofit will eventually be shut down. Nonprofits only have four basic ways of making money: grants/contracts, donations, fees for services, or investment income.

Because nonprofits, like other businesses, have a wide array of needs, they buy goods and services they can’t productively make or do themselves. We’re fond of the plumber analogy: most nonprofits do not have a plumber on staff, and, when their toilets clog, they hire someone to unclog the toilet. When the plumber is done with the job, she or he presents a bill and the nonprofit pays it.

That’s straightforward. But many people seem to feel that grant applications are more like a college admissions essay, in which hiring a consultant is somehow cheating.* We obviously don’t think so, since our entire job involves preparing grant applications. Nonetheless, those people don’t really think that grant writing is like plumbing (at least until they need a grant writer). Regardless of feelings, however, nonprofit and public agencies that submit better proposals tend to get funded more often than those that don’t—so feelings about the purity of the grant writing process get weeded out by the “market,” which still exists for nonprofits. People who think they’re good grant writers but turn out not to be eventually find they can’t run their nonprofit, or they can’t expand it, just like people who think they’ve got a great business idea but can’t sell.

We’ve also argued before that there’s no reason in principle why a nonprofit grant writing agency can’t exist, but in practice none do, and, even if they did, the demand for their services would far outstrip supply, as usually happens when something is given away. If you want to know why you generally can’t get something for nothing, well, look around: few people or firms give valuable things away, while many people or firms are selling valuable things, and prices tend to show what people in the aggregate think is valuable and what people think is less valuable.

Demand for “free” grant writing services would be especially high because grant writing is very boring, difficult, and tedious—a troika that makes free grant writing especially unlikely, since grant writing doesn’t give people the good feelings they might get from, say, doling out soup at a soup kitchen, or providing pro-bono legal work. Volunteers have their place, but most organizations that operate on more than a shoestring basis are quickly going to discover the limitations of volunteers.

Even nominally low-cost grant writing services often turn out to be quite expensive. As most of us have discovered the hard way, it’s not at all unusual to get what you pay for. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part higher prices imply higher quality, at least up to a point. We’ve been hired by innumerable nonprofit and public agencies to attempt to salvage jobs prepared by “low-cost” grant writers, and we’ve also had nonprofits call us, hire someone else, then call us back for the same program in the next funding round and hire us instead of the other firm.

In response to the ideas above, “pbreit” replied: “I would think that a nonprofit reasonably considers grant writing a core competence or at least well closer to a core competence than, say, plumbing.” Maybe that’s true. But many nonprofits are good at delivering human services, and less good at writing proposals. Those skills do not necessarily co-occur, and if there’s any overlap between the skill of delivering human services and the skill of writing, it’s pretty slender. Plus, becoming a great writer is a “10,000-hour skill” that takes a lot of deliberate practice to develop. That’s why you have to take so many years of English classes in school (though I realize many of those English classes are bad, but that’s another topic). The average person who decides, “I want to become a competent grant writer” is probably looking at a couple of years of effort.

Sufficiently large nonprofits usually do have a grant writer on staff, but smaller ones usually don’t. A really good grant writer will probably cost at least $70,000 per year in salary alone, and is likely to cost much more. That big number helps explain why relatively few small- to mid-sized organizations have one. In addition, hiring a grant writer who turns out not to be particularly good at his or her job can really hurt a nonprofit. We’ve been hired by many, many nonprofit and public agencies who have grant writers on staff—sometimes for positive reasons (the in-house grant writer is overwhelmed or on leave) and sometimes for less positive ones (the in-house grant writer isn’t very good at writing proposals, is scared of the RFP or the Executive Director wants to play “shoot the consultant,” if the proposal is not funded). For small nonprofits, hiring a full-time or even part time grant writer might actually be outside their core competency.

What we’ve described in the last two paragraphs is a specific instance of a more generalizable question about whether one should hire a consultant, learn a skill, hire an employee, or not have it performed, and we’ve written about that issue in “Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?” Different organizations will deal with these questions in different ways, depending on a variety of factors.** These problems recur in the business world and in the personal world: Do you want to learn how to cook, hire someone else to cook through going to a restaurant, or not eat? Do you want to learn bike maintenance, take your bike to a shop, let your bike degrade over time, or not ride?

The most reasonable middle ground for nonprofits, for-profits, and people in general is to work to expand your range of basic and advanced skills while simultaneously acknowledging that you’re not going to learn everything. Things you don’t know how to do but want done you’ll probably have to pay for, one way or another. This isn’t always true—family members generally don’t charge each other when one person makes dinner—but as a general rule it’s pretty good, since strangers very rarely give valuable things to other strangers without a reason. Attractive women have told me that men will often do things for them and buy drinks for them and so on, without any or much prompting, but I definitely don’t qualify that as being “without a reason,” since the reason in most cases is probably obvious.

I don’t think most people are consciously thinking about the choices between learning, buying, and not having. But if you want to run a successful nonprofit, public agency, or business, you should start thinking about them now.

* Actually, hiring an admissions essay consultant starts to make sense when one thinks about how much money might be on the line in terms of scholarships, but that’s another issue for another day. The higher the financial stakes in a one-time event that doesn’t allow repeated attempts at practice, the stronger the incentive to make sure one does everything one can to win.

** If you’re curious about how this works in an academic context, check out Coase’s famous essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” in which Coase describes why firms exist at all.